The face of the White House press operation has already undergone several iterations, with each embodying the administration in their own special way. First was Sean Spicer, who exemplified the administration’s comfort with telling bald lies and being openly hostile toward the news media. Then came Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, who was Donald Trump’s vulgarity incarnate. Now we have Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose style as press secretary is less shrill than Spicer, and less pelvic-thrusting bravado à la The Mooch. But that’s what makes her the most insidious of them all.
Sanders made numerous appearances at the podium as deputy press secretary, but she was pushed front and center in July when Spicer quit in protest of Scaramucci’s appointment as communications director, and really came into her own after Scaramucci left the White House in a blaze of profanity-laced glory. (Hope Hicks, Trump’s longtime flack, was formally named Scaramucci’s replacement this week.) Sanders is the first mother to serve as the White House press secretary. She is also the daughter of former Arkansas Governor and bad joke-teller Mike Huckabee. As a devout evangelical, Sanders reads from a book of Christian devotionals prior to every press briefing, according to The New York Times.
Where Spicer sputtered and The Mooch sleazed, Sanders is more in line with what you would expect of a professional press relations person. She is a little muted, a little dead-eyed, yes, but she is also less aggressive, less condescending, less startlingly terrible. She speaks in a slow and deliberate southern accent, often gracing her speech with rueful smiles. But in essence, Sanders is the same as her predecessors. She lies. She thinks her job is to discredit the news media, not to answer the public’s questions. Above all, she provides cover for her racist, despotic boss.
The world was reminded of this fact on Wednesday, when Sanders said ESPN should fire Jemele Hill, a black female reporter, for calling Trump a “white supremacist” and “bigot” on Twitter. Sanders told reporters, “I think that’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make, and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN.” It was a Trumpian mix of chilling authoritarianism, racial grievance, and personal vendetta that was delivered by Sanders with stony calm.
But compared to her predecessors, Sanders has flown quietly under the radar. She has not been immortalized by Melissa McCarthy. She has not engaged in a painful, snowballing gaffe about Adolf Hitler not using chemical weapons in the Holocaust. She has not called up a reporter for The New Yorker to accuse her colleagues of cock-blocking. And she is not so obviously a shrieking propaganda mouthpiece, as Spicer was. On his first day of the job, he loudly declared that Trump had the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period.” In that moment, Spicer made clear just what the Trump administration thought about the truth—perhaps too clear.
Sanders’s specialty is to obscure. She uses her motherhood, in particular, to deflect uncomfortable questions and relate to reporters on a human level. When she was asked about the chaos in the White House after The Mooch was fired, she joked, “If you want to see chaos, come to my house with three preschoolers. This doesn’t hold a candle to that.” When she stepped in for a rattled Spicer to address questions about the firing of James Comey, she began the press briefing by saying, “In addition to all of the big news happening at the White House today, it is also my daughter Scarlett’s fifth birthday … And with that, I think her first birthday wish would probably be that you guys are incredibly nice,” drawing laughs from assembled reporters.
When pressed by reporters about Trump’s misogynistic attacks on Mika Brzezinski, Sanders said, “When it comes to role models, as a person of faith, we all have one perfect role model. And when I’ve asked that question I point to God. I point to my faith. And that’s where I would tell my kids to look.” Even Barack Obama’s White House communications director tweeted upon Sanders’s promotion: “Congratulations to @SarahHuckabee. We may disagree on policy, but always great to see a hard working woman rise to be public WH face.”
Sanders also uses the mouths of babes to gloss over Trump’s horrible policies. When Trump endorsed Tom Cotton and David Perdue’s draconian immigration bill that would have cut legal immigration in half, Sanders started her press briefing by reading from a letter by a 10-year-old named Frank: “It would be my honor to mow the White House lawn for some weekend for you. Even though I’m only 10 I’d like to show the nation what young people like me are ready for.” Later, she tied the immigration bill to Frank’s letter, stating, “It’s our responsibility to keep the American dream alive for kids like Frank, immigrants who are already here and those who dream of immigrating here in the future.”
On the day that Trump tweeted that he was banning transgender people from serving in the military, Sanders kicked off the press briefing with a letter from 9-year-old Dylan, who wrote that he had had a Trump-themed birthday and stated, “I don’t know why people don’t like you.”
Sanders has also had her blow-ups. Her biggest confrontation with the press probably came in late June, when she derided the media’s “fake news” against Trump, singling out CNN for abuse. CNN is a frequent Trump target, on Twitter and elsewhere, and critics say his endorsement of violent imagery against CNN encourages violence against journalists. When a reporter said that Sanders was “inflaming everybody right here and right now with those words,” she angrily shot back, “I think it is outrageous for you to accuse me of inflaming a story when I was simply trying to respond to his question.”
But those heated moments are the exception, not the norm. More often, she tells lies with a straight face, like on Wednesday, when she claimed that Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, had not expressed any “displeasure” with Trump’s initial remarks about Charlottesville in a meeting with the president. In fact, Scott met with Trump precisely to express his displeasure about the president’s “many sides” comments. “I shared my thoughts of the last three centuries of challenges from white supremacists, white nationalists, KKK, Nazis,” he told reporters.
Her list of lies is lengthy, in keeping with the respect the White House has for the intelligence of voters. She has lied that the Russia scandal is a hoax. She has lied about Trump lying about the president of Mexico praising him for his immigration policies. She has lied about the FBI rank-and-file’s dissatisfaction with James Comey. She has lied that Trump has never “promoted or encouraged violence.” She has lied that “multiple news reports” had backed up Trump’s lie that Barack Obama had wiretapped him. She has said she believes it is not “appropriate to lie from the podium or any other place,” which is itself a lie.
But the truth is that she’s better at it than Spicer, who seemed to be tripped up by his lies. Perhaps his stumbles even betrayed his sense of guilt, whereas Sanders shows nothing. She is superior to her predecessors, and thus infinitely worse for the country. This is why her placid gaze is so disturbing: It is the face of a White House whose deceptions and outrages have become all too normal.